Sunday, June 6, 2010

Revenge of Beretta


Books:


The Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories edited by Leslie Shepard: This relatively short hardcover anthology was released during the vampire boom of the 1970's, which explains the production values -- it's printed on amazingly thick and luxurious paper. It's not a great anthology by any stretch of the imagination (for one, it's too short to be so), but it does contain a number of fine stories. Most importantly, one gets the terrific novella "Carmilla" by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, a pre-Dracula vampire tale that manages to be both sporadically erotic and genuinely horrifying. I've also got a soft spot for E.F. Benson's somewhat murky "The Room in the Tower" and Guy de Maupassant's "The Horla", also included here, as is the deleted prologue to Dracula, "Dracula's Guest." Recommended, though I was disappointed that Dracula was not in fact the editor.


The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: Collins produces a great Young Adult science-fiction novel here, in the first part of a trilogy that's satisfying on pretty much every level. In a dystopian future, war and environmental disaster have left most humans in North America confined to zones dedicated to specific agricultural, industrial and mining purposes, all ruled dictatorially from another zone.

To fulfill a Bread-and-Circuses mandate while also demonstrating its absolute control over everybody, the government stages The Hunger Games every year. Two teenagers from each zone a male and a female) are dropped into an artificially manipulated 'game' zone in which they must compete to the death until only one winner remains alive. We follow our appealing, pragmatic, rebellious protagonist as she is selected for the games, undergoes training, and then must battle to win while trying to come up with a way to keep her fellow conscript from her zone alive.

Collins creates lively, appealing, flawed characters, and she really ratchets up the tension during the length section of the novel devoted to the games themselves. What I also like about the novel is the growing realization on the part of the reader that this future must be a long, long way from now: genetically modified plants, animals and insects abound; the technology available to the government is staggeringly advanced; the majority of the people, kept from both this technology and from any understanding of their true history, mostly have no conception of 'our' time. We've become less than myth.

This is a dandy achievement in a sub-genre that includes works like The Running Man, Series 7 and "The Most Dangerous Game." Highly recommended for anyone 14 or over.


Movie:


Iron Man 2, written by Justin Theroux, directed by Jon Favreau, starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Mickey Rourke, Scarlet Johannsen, Sam Rockwell, Garry Shandling and Don Cheadle: The first Iron Man movie was notable for the unusual fact that the non-superhero sequences were far more interesting than the superhero battles, primarily because of the charm of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony "Iron Man" Stark and Gwyneth Paltrow as his long-suffering personal assistant "Pepper" Potts.

The strength of the original is pretty much the strength of the sequel as well. Unfortunately, sequelitis sets in to such an extent that an abundance of new characters threatens to push Downey and Paltrow aside for long stretches of the movie. The movie grunts and sweats to not much effect because of the heavy lifting involved in getting characters such as War Machine, Black Widow and Nick Fury enough screen time to prepare us for upcoming Marvel-franchise movies Thor, Captain America and The Avengers. It doesn't help that director Favreau seems to be profoundly uninterested in the dynamics of action sequences -- we're subjected to lengthy CGI battles among various permutations of people wearing metal suits and robots, none of them executed with much flair.

What's supremely odd is that the movie replicates many of the flaws of another superhero movie sequel, Batman Returns. We get a filthy, vaguely disgusting villain who doesn't much resemble his comic-book progenitor (here, Rourke's Whiplash; there, Danny DeVito's Penguin). We get a superhero woman in a catsuit (Johannsen's Black Widow; Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman). We get a climactic army of rocket-wielding, civilian-threatening beings (Rourke's robots; DeVito's penguin army). We get a scene-stealing evil industrialist (Rockwell's Justin Hammer; Christopher Walken's Max Schreck). Both Iron Man and Batman are publically disgraced early in the movie. And so on, and so forth. The Penguin's army of of penguins with rockets strapped to their backs is actually a much more credible threat than Rourke's robot army, which proves incapable of much more than property damage.

Heck, Whiplash even has a pet bird -- a cockatoo, not a penguin, alas. Articles on the making of the movie have noted that Rourke came up with Whiplash's cockatoo companion himself, as if this were a bold bit of Method character creation and not, as I thought every time the bird was onscreen, Rourke unintentionally paying homage to the 70's cop show Beretta. So many characters. Recommended, though just barely.


Across the Pacific, directed by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet (1942): This unremarkable wartime thriller gives us Bogart at the beginning of his stardom after more than a decade in Hollywood -- he even gets his name above the title thanks to the success of the previous year's Maltese Falcon. Astor and Greenstreet were also in the much-superior Falcon, while Falcon director Huston had to leave this picture with several scenes left to be done by another director thanks to wartime committments.

Basically, Bogart seeks to thwart a Japanese plot against the Panama Canal on the eve of Pearl Harbour. Unfortunate ethnic and racial stereotypes abound, including an American-born Japanese man who is really a Japanese collaborator. It's like a promo for the Japanese internment camps. And he wears really thick, distorting glasses! Ha ha! That is hilarious! Not recommended, though some of the visual effects and model work are unusually incompetent, even for the era -- both a ship and a plane appear to have been designed and animated by a five-year-old child with a bad case of the shakes.

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